The NL West: A Bad Joke, or Marginally Funny?
As was the case in 2005, the NL West has been the punch line to many jokes this season -- despite the fact that, through games of Monday, September 18, the combined winning percentage in the division was a very respectable .498. It's not the stellar .523 mark of the AL West, but neither is it the NL Central's dismal .464. Stick the NL West's worst team, the Rockies, into the Central and three teams are looking up at them.
That combined .498 winning percentage is also a huge improvement over last year's .459. In fact, no other division in baseball has seen as big a jump from 2005 to 2006 as the NL West:
2006 2005 Dif AL East .497 .507 -.010 AL Central .521 .496 +.025 AL West .523 .511 +.012 NL East .507 .525 -.018 NL Central .464 .503 -.039 NL West .498 .459 +.039
Although the NL West clearly was the weakest division in baseball a year ago, it has yielded that title to the NL Central. What's interesting is that the improvement in the West hasn't been limited to just one or two teams. With 12-13 games remaining, two of the teams already have more wins in 2006 than they did in 2005, and the remaining three are within reach. The Padres need to win 5 of their final 13 to break last year's total, while the Giants need to go just 2-11, so there's a pretty solid chance that four teams in the division will have performed better this season than last. It's not even that much of a stretch to imagine Arizona winning 7 of its final 13 games to join the others.
Okay, so I've painted a pretty picture. But let's not confuse "improved" with "great"; the division stunk last year, so even an improvement only gets us so far. It gets us about as far as not being able to use the NL West as the punch line anymore, which is a start at least.
How Did They Do It?
So, how were all these teams able to upgrade themselves from "slightly lousy" to "mediocre, give or take a little" in the span of a year? Interestingly, each has gone about it a different way.
The Padres, who were ridiculed for winning the division in 2005, basically overhauled their roster to make it more athletic, particularly in the outfield (hello, Mike Cameron), and to strengthen the pitching staff (the club leads the NL with a 3.94 ERA this year after finishing seventh at 4.13 last season). They also made a couple key acquisitions, chief among them the deal that brought Adrian Gonzalez, Chris Young, and Terrmel Sledge from Texas for Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton, and the now-infamous Doug "Hooray, I Can Catch a Knuckleball" Mirabelli for Josh Bard, Cla Meredith, and cash swap with the Boston Red Sox.
The Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Rockies all have committed to rebuilding from within. The early returns have been very encouraging for each, with youngsters such as Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Andre Ethier, Russell Martin, Jonathan Broxton, Chad Billingsley, Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe, and Jeff Francis establishing themselves as solid contributors.
The Giants are another animal altogether, and it's a bit puzzling that they've done as well as they have. Barry Bonds is a shadow of his former self, and beyond Jason Schmidt, the pitching staff looked pretty suspect coming into the season. But Ray Durham has had a career year, and Moises Alou has been solid when healthy. Perhaps most significantly, right-hander Matt Cain has emerged as a rising force. Put those together and somehow San Francisco has managed to stay close to the pack for much of the season.
We've established that the NL West as a whole is stronger now than it was in 2005, and we've identified some general ways in which each of its inhabitants has contributed to that effort. Next we'll highlight a few key individual performances within the division. Actually, we'll do better than that; we'll build a divisional "All-Star" team and compare the best at each position in the NL West to others around the league:
C: Mike Piazza (.278/.338/.503), Russell Martin (.286/.355/.442). The Padres brought in Piazza as a free agent from New York, which had assumed that the veteran backstop was finished. Seems Piazza had other ideas, as he has been one of the most productive catchers in baseball this season -- among full-time starters in the NL, only Atlanta's Brian McCann and Chicago's Michael Barrett have posted better numbers; then again, neither of them has Josh Bard to pick up the slack on days off. Martin took an entirely different route, starting the year at Triple-A Las Vegas as the Dodgers' #4 prospect (according to Baseball America) before being recalled May 5 to replace the injured Dioner Navarro. Martin, who attended the same Montreal high school as teammate Eric Gagne, never relinquished the job, and Navarro ended up in Tampa Bay.
1B: Adrian Gonzalez (.296/.351/.492), Nomar Garciaparra (.305/.371/.507). First base is one of the weakest positions in the division. You won't find anyone here to compare with Albert Pujols, Ryan Howard, Nick Johnson, Carlos Delgado, or even Adam LaRoche. The best among the lot is probably Gonzalez, who wasn't expected to break camp with the big club. But Ryan Klesko's bad shoulder secured the former #1 overall pick's spot on the roster, and after his first full season, Gonzalez looks not only like a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat, but also a perennial Gold Glove candidate. Garciaparra has enjoyed a fine resurgence in his hometown of Los Angeles, playing more games this season than in the previous two combined. The downside is that he's still managed to miss a fair amount of time due to injury.
2B: Ray Durham (.296/.364/.540), Orlando Hudson (.292/.359/.468). Although he no longer is a running threat, Durham has taken the rest of his offensive game to unprecedented levels. His play at second base this season is one of the main reasons the Giants have remained in the hunt for so long. He's pretty much right there with Chase Utley and Dan Uggla at the top of this position in the NL. As for Hudson, his addition to the Diamondbacks has provided them with a solid overall offensive attack and a brilliant defender at the keystone corner.
3B: Garrett Atkins (.324/.399/.542), Chad Tracy (.276/.335/.436). In his second season, Atkins has taken his game to a new level. Already a solid contributor at the plate, Atkins has raised his batting average more than 30 points this year while increasing his walk rate and nearly doubling his homers. That's not quite enough to get him into Miguel Cabrera territory, but he can comfortably brush elbows with the likes of Chipper Jones, David Wright, Scott Rolen, and Aramis Ramirez -- no shame in that. Tracy is listed as Atkins' backup by default, as third base has been a very weak position in the division this year.
SS: Rafael Furcal (.297/.364/.439), Omar Vizquel (.303/.368/.401). Furcal's numbers look nice enough out of context, but when you realize what a slow start he got off to, they look even better. Since the All-Star break he's hitting .339/.392/.565, which means the Dodgers have been getting middle-of-the-order production from their leadoff hitter for the past couple of months and change. As for Vizquel, all I can say is that 39-year-old shortstops aren't supposed to be this good. In fact, they're not supposed to exist. I find myself having to rethink him as a Hall of Famer. Both of these guys are among the best at their position in the NL this year, although everyone will be looking up at Jose Reyes and Hanley Ramirez soon enough.
LF: Matt Holliday (.332/.386/.575), Barry Bonds (.262/.456/.532). Like Atkins, Holliday stepped his game up in a big way this season. He still doesn't draw walks, but when you hit .330 with 40+ doubles and 25-30 homers, who cares? Although Holliday benefits greatly from Coors Field (1108 OPS at home vs 828 on the road), he's not a zero away from it. He's been as good as any left fielder in the NL this year, including Jason Bay, Alfonso Soriano, Pat Burrell, and Adam Dunn. As for Bonds, it's pretty amazing that even hurt and presumably clean, he's still producing at a very high rate. Honorable mention goes to Andre Ethier.
CF: Mike Cameron (.266/.354/.477), Eric Byrnes (.270/.319/.489). Cameron has injected power and speed into a lineup that had little of either before his arrival. He's also improved the entire outfield defense in San Diego by allowing Dave Roberts to move to his natural left field and reducing the amount of ground Brian Giles has to cover in right. He's no Carlos Beltran (who is?), but Cameron and Andruw Jones head the second-tier at this position. Byrnes, meantime, quietly has put up a strong campaign for the Diamondbacks. Honorable mention goes to Kenny Lofton.
RF: J.D. Drew (.276/.385/.474), Brad Hawpe (.285/.375/.489). Hey, finally a position where the NL West really shines. These two guys have posted nearly identical numbers in radically different environments. The weird part is that Drew is hitting .290/.415/.522 at Dodger Stadium and .263/.356/.428 away from it, while Hawpe is hitting just .277/.369/.423 at Coors Field and .292/.381/.548 on the road. This was kind of a down year for right fielders in the NL overall. Jacque Jones and Jeff Francouer lead the pack in homers. Yuck.
SP: Brandon Webb (16-6, 2.92 ERA), Jason Jennings (8-12, 3.61 ERA). Okay, Webb is a no-brainer since he's a serious candidate for the Cy Young Award this year. He's right there with Chris Carpenter and Roy Oswalt at the top among NL starters. As for Jennings, his record isn't great but he gets extra credit for posting a 3.16 ERA over 13 starts at Coors Field. Honorable mentions go to Jason Schmidt, Chris Young, and Derek Lowe.
RP: Trevor Hoffman (0-2, 39 SV, 2.09 ERA), Takashi Saito (5-2, 7 HLD, 19 SV, 2.28 ERA). Hoffman has had a few hiccups, as you might expect from a 38-year-old with a mid-80s fastball, but he continues marching toward history with trademark efficiency. Saito was brought in from Japan to support Eric Gagne, but when Gagne went down and others faltered, Saito stepped in and took control. The right-hander has been lights out most of the year and has helped bring credibility to a previously suspect Dodgers bullpen. Billy Wagner probably has had a better year than Hoffman and Saito among NL relievers, but that's about it. Honorable mentions go to Cla Meredith and Jonathan Broxton.
The NL West hasn't been great in 2006, but it has been much stronger than it was a year ago. Sadly for those who tell them, the jokes that are still making the rounds no longer apply. Substitute NL Central, and the jokes might work. They won't necessarily be funny, but at least they'll be more accurate, and that counts for something.
Geoff Young is the author of Ducksnorts, a blog focused on the San Diego Padres, as well as Knuckle Curve, a general baseball blog. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two dogs, and enjoys eating Thai food, playing his guitar, and going for long walks around Petco Park.